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How Broadway Actors Cope Waiting for the Curtain to Go Back Up (Guest Blog)

”In a funny way, this time is not that dissimilar to my usual life, with periods of waiting, finding other ways to be creative and to help those in need,“ Alyssa May Gold

Alyssa May Gold had found her dream project. She would be performing alongside Mary-Louise Parker in a Broadway revival of “How I Learned to Drive.” “This one was so important for me, both in my career trajectory,” Gold said, “and my quest to be part of telling stories that deal with complicated women.” The show was in its third week of rehearsals and tickets were selling well. When, like all theaters in New York (and beyond), it was closed until further notice. (On Monday, Manhattan Theatre Club announced plans to remount “How I Learned to Drive” this fall.)

Erika Henningsen had just left the Broadway musical “Mean Girls” for a role in Lincoln Center Theatre’s next Broadway production, “Flying Over Sunset.” She saw the darker musical about a trio of famous folks (Cary Grant, Aldous Huxley and Clare Booth Luce) and their use of LSD as  a way to prove she could “flex new muscles.” “Sunset” had just finished its last tech rehearsal when word came of the show’s postponement. “Our families and the Lincoln Center staff were there, and I thought, ‘This could be the only time people see this show,'” Henningsen recalled.

If she’s lucky, it will not be. Like so many other productions — 16 new ones due to open by the end of April, in time for Tony Award eligibility — “Sunset” hopes to return when things return to normal. Already, “Hangmen” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (the latter starring Laurie Metcalf) have announced they are canceled, not postponed. Only that Founding Father rapper, and the Lion who still roars, seem safe.

Obviously, producers, writers, investors and theater owners have tough calls ahead. And so many performers who were having a moment are holding their breaths. Henningsen garnered a huge following on Instagram after her acclaimed work as one of Tina Fey’s not-so-nice girls. “I was with it two and a half years, the longest I’ve ever done one show,” she said. She auditioned for “Flying Over Sunset” for several reasons, including the chance to work on a show with Tony-winning Tom Kitt and book writer James Lapine. “I always dreamed of doing something at Lincoln Center, the creators are amazing and even though it’s a supporting part, it feels like a stepping stone. The music and sensibility are so different from ‘Mean Girls.'”

Like Henningsen, Alyssa May Gold is on the rise. She received glowing reviews from a recent Off Broadway performance, and then auditioned for “How I Learned to Drive.” Most of the company, including Parker and co-star David Morse, had done the original (Off Broadway) production decades ago. Gold, who plays part of a Greek chorus of sorts, was nervous until Parker gave her a huge welcoming hug. “She said, ‘I’m attacking the new people!’ Mary is a special leader, and she knows the responsibility that goes with it.” Gold said the cast was in denial until the moment the production was officially shuttered: “We were acting right up until the final notice.”

Gold founded a theater company called Pocket Universe, and is keeping busy with a new project connecting health-care workers with artists to help in whatever way they can. “In a funny way, this time is not that dissimilar to my usual life,” she said, “with periods of waiting, finding other ways to be creative and to help those in need.”

That’s a theme echoed by many suddenly stranded performers, including Montego Glover, a Tony-nominated actress who has performed on Broadway, (“Les Miserables,” “Memphis”) but was garnering new attention in an Off Broadway play called “All the Natalie Portmans” that had four more performances to go “We’ve been told the producers might find another way of letting us come back, so we shall see,” she said. Glover has worked in all media, (She is in a new Shonda Rhimes Netflix show called “Inventing Anna”) but “cut my teeth” in theater, and the Natalie role felt like a career changer: “It was tremendously important. I had never played a woman like her before. She has a darkness, a weight, and yet there is hope and yearning in her.”

Marc Kudisch is much further along in his career, having numerous shows and Tony nominations behind him. But he said “Girl From the North Country,” a new musical featuring classic Bob Dylan songs had just opened on Broadway before the shutdown, was arguably his most special yet. The Depression-era musical, with a book by Conor McPherson, had received mostly positive reviews. “I was with the show from its first workshop here,” Kudisch said, “and it has been a labor of love. I cannot imagine anyone in our company not committed to coming back. But it’s a risky show and will depend on word of mouth.”

They are actors, and they are eager to get written words back in their own mouths. Like the rest of us, they are now exercising via Zoom, watching the crazy “Tiger King” guy and walking their dogs. They bravely entered an up-and-down profession, wherein limbo is a regular state. But none imagined all the lights going off at once.

Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.